Gordon Hayward Sr. was probably a bit jealous of his son Tuesday evening.
Before the Celtics’ game against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden, Hayward Jr. got a chance to meet tennis legend John McEnroe, his father’s favorite tennis player growing up in Indiana. The two chatted for a bit on center court before McEnroe took a few shots on the parquet. (Few actually went in the basket.)
“I used to play high school basketball,” said a smiling McEnroe, in town to promote the Laver Cup, a three-day tennis tournament coming to TD Garden in September. “I don’t think these guys would be too threatened by my basketball ability.”
Tuesday wasn’t the first time Hayward and the 61-year-old McEnroe had met. McEnroe visited Salt Lake City for a tennis exhibition in 2014 when Hayward was a member of the Utah Jazz, so the pair got a chance to rally for a bit on a tennis court.
“He can hit a pretty good ball,” said McEnroe, who quickly qualified his compliment. “For a basketball player.”
Hayward started playing tennis when he was 5 years old. His parents, who both played, introduced him and his twin sister, Heather, to the sport. The pair competed in mixed doubles, and even won a few tournaments together, but Hayward said singles was his primary focus.
“I liked singles way better than doubles,” Hayward said. “I just kind of liked everything being on you as an individual. I like that aspect of tennis: You’ve got to pick yourself up. Whether you’re having success or not, it’s all on you.”
Growing up in Indiana, Hayward juggled multiple sports through middle school before concentrating on just tennis and basketball once he got to Brownsburg High. Rail-thin at 5 feet 11 inches his freshman year, he actually contemplated quitting basketball. He thought he was better at tennis, and could pursue a career in college.
“My parents were both 5-foot-10, so I didn’t know if I would grow,” said Hayward, now a 6-8 swingman with the Celtics. “I wanted to play a sport in college, and tennis was looking more and more like the easier route.”
Although Hayward didn’t compete on the national level, he participated in local USTA tournaments and held the No. 1 singles spot for three years in high school. To try to win a state title, he even skipped AAU basketball the summer before his senior year. (He ended up losing to the eventual winner.)
Sticking to basketball, however, clearly paid off for Hayward, now in his 10th NBA season. He sees some carryover between the sports, namely the emphasis on lateral movement, the ability to change direction, and the need for short bursts of energy. He also credits tennis for helping him establish a strong mental game.
“You’re on an island out there by yourself, so you have to figure out how to pull yourself together,” he said. “In basketball, there are times where you’ve got to do the same thing and move on to the next play. There’s no better sport than tennis to move onto the next play. Every single time a point’s over, you win or lose, you got to play the next one.”
Had he stuck to tennis, Hayward imagines his game would have been similar to 6-10 American John Isner, someone he has forged a relationship with over the years. Hayward initially was a baseliner, his athleticism facilitating strong court coverage, but after he hit a growth spurt, soaring to 6-8 his senior year of high school, his coach encouraged him to adopt more of a serve-and-volley style — the core of Isner’s game.
“He’s a good 2 or 3 inches taller than me, but I’d like to think if I were to play on the tour, I would be something like him,” Hayward said.
To cap their meeting, Hayward and McEnroe exchanged “jerseys.” Hayward gave McEnroe a custom green Celtics jersey, and McEnroe gifted him a red Team World jacket for the Laver Cup. As McEnroe was walking away, NBC Sports commentator and former Celtic Brian Scalabrine called out to Hayward.
“Who would win, if you guys played a match today?” Scalabrine asked.
Hayward smiled and, without hesitation, pointed to McEnroe.